Choking: How to Help Prevent It From Happening
We’ve either all been there or know of someone who is no doubt the fastest rider on the gate but something always seems to go wrong. They absolutely kill it in practice and moto’s, but then the pressure rounds kick in and they absolutely crumble under the pressure. You’re left scratching your head and begin wondering how the likes of Maris Stromberg was able to come in clutch in key moments.
First off, what is choking? It can be defined as “an acute and considerable decrease in skill execution and performance when self-expected standards are normally achievable, which is the result of increased anxiety under perceived pressure”.
When under pressure, a rider prone to choking will have an increase in anxiety, which in turn may make them to try take conscious control over their movements. This causes mistakes – through making a normally automated skill (such as a gate start) and begin to overthink and try to control every little bit of the start.
The ability to perform under pressure can be increased using a variety of coping mechanisms. Developing these coping mechanisms allows in training, allows riders to have a tool bag full of strategies designed to help minimise stress and maximise performance in critical situations when needed.
So, what are these coping mechanisms?
The obvious solution – but least used in BMX, is exposing a rider to pressure situation consistently in practice. Instead of avoiding the pressure situations that make them uncomfortable, facing them head on in training simulations is going to allow for the most consistent improvements.
By creating the situations that cause anxiety, the rider will either begin to feel more comfortable in the situation or develop the mental coping skills needed to perform. Being able to perform under race pressure situations in practice, allows the rider to feel much more competent when the real situation arrives at a race.Here are a few examples of areas that can be used to create pressure environments:
- Make the last gate at the end of the session the Final and hype it up, make it uncomfortable for the riders (in terms of pressure)
- Purposely rolling into the gate between two fast riders
- Racing through straights in a pack and getting close to other riders
- Sending it in unpleasant conditions (windy or rain)
- Practice half or full laps (with other racers)
Often, your toughest competitor is yourself. The voice inside your head is very influential, but often riders who suffer from choking have negative self-talk. This can be easily checked – by asking yourself “would I talk to someone I coach like this?”
A step in the right direction is developing positive self-talk. This can be by simply monitoring what you are thinking, along with intentionally incorporating motivational self-talk. This will help lower anxiety level plus increase concentration and focus.
Instructional self-talk is another way for a rider to cope with anxiety. This is simply by developing cue words while performing a complex task – such as a gate start. In this, I personally use for my gate starts - “head, shoulders forward”. It only needs to be a few key words but gives the rider something to shift their focus to without cluttering their mind with a whole list of things to do
If you changed your approach to something every time – would you expect the same outcome every time? This is often where riders get caught with inconsistencies in their start. Without a developed and practiced routine, it leaves a lot up to chance.
For example, developing a routine for the gate start will help create consistent starts – along with a sense of familiarity when in a pressure situation.
The routine should be completed before every start in both practice and racing and be the same for both. This doesn’t need to be extremely elaborate – all I do is check my pedal height – lean forward and take a big breath out on “ok riders set up” then lean back while breathing in and hold for the remainder of the start.
Repeating this will held hugely with a rider who struggles with anxiety, as it allows you to flick into auto pilot and do the same gate routine that you know works.
If you are a rider you know struggles with choking under pressure, incorporating these tools into their training is a massive step forward into unlocking their potential!